Real Estate

Roommates: Your Rights and Liabilities

By Marcia Stewart, Co-Author of Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home and Every Landlord's Legal Guide
Know your rights when it comes to living with roommates, and avoid problems by choosing carefully and spelling out your agreement in writing.

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Living with one or more roommates is not always easy, but it may be a necessity when you simply can’t afford a house or apartment on your own. Sharing a home with others can be a lot of fun—or it can be something you hate. You can avoid a lot of headaches by carefully selecting housemates and preparing a written roommate agreement that covers the day-to-day details of living together, including how you will resolve any problems that come up.

Even if your potential new roommate is a close friend, you’ll want to make sure you’ll be compatible living together, since you are going to be around each other a lot, sharing expenses, and perhaps sharing food, the bathroom, television set, or yard. In some cases, you may even be sharing a bedroom.

Before you choose to a roommate, be sure to ask questions about everything important to you in a living situation, such as standard of cleanliness or neatness, acceptable noise levels, and frequency of overnight guests (see the discussion of roommate agreements, below, for key issues to discuss).

Particularly if you’re considering sharing a rental with a stranger you found online, ask for and check references from former roommates or landlords.

Preparing a Roommate Agreement

Often, roommate disputes start with poor communication or a mismatch of expectations. Most roommate disputes can be avoided by laying out simple guidelines and expectations at the beginning of the living arrangement in a written roommate agreement. An informal discussion about who pays rent or does what chores is just not good enough.

Your roommate agreement should cover key terms of your agreement, including:

  • rent, deposits, and services, such as utilities and Internet (who pays what when)
  • chores ( grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, recycling), food, and use of the living space (what and how you will share)
  • house rules regarding pets, smoking, drinking, drug use, noise, and guests
  • notice required to move out (and consequences of leaving early)
  • how you will handle any major disputes that come up (for example, about damage to the rental property), and
  • any other issues important to you (such as an all vegan kitchen).

For a sample roommate agreement, see the sample roommate agreement in the Nolo.com article Roommates: Renting a Place With Others.

Remember that your roommate agreement should not be at odds with the lease that you and your roommates (cotenants) sign with the landlord. If you put something in your roommate agreement that violates a lease term on something like deposits or pets, it won’t be valid.

Also, remember, that a roommate agreement is an agreement among roommates. It’s not binding on the landlord, and you can’t expect your landlord to enforce any agreement you made with your roommate.

Settling Minor Roommate Disputes

Even with a clear written roommate agreement, disputes may arise. Communication is key to a quick resolution. Speak up if you’re upset by something your roommate (or a roommate’s guest or pet) did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say. Calmly explain why you’re upset. Be specific and let your roommate know how to keep the peace in the future. Including a section on dispute resolution in your roommate, perhaps an agreement to try mediation on specific issues, may help.

Dealing with the Landlord

All roommates should sign the rental agreement or lease, making you cotenants—each of you will be individually responsible for paying the entire rent each month and fulfilling other rental obligations. Your lease will probably require your landlord’s approval to add or replace a roommate (if you’ve already signed a lease and moved in); savvy landlords will ask you to sign an entirely new lease. Your landlord will likely want to check any potential roommate’s credit record and references and get an additional security deposit. Also, you may see an increase in rent (and the security deposit) if you are adding a new person (not just replacing a current roommate).

Also, you or a roommate can’t typically sublet your space to a temporary roommate, without your landlord’s permission.

If Your Roommate Violates the Lease

Your landlord can terminate the entire tenancy, even if just one roommate causes problems—for example, by not paying the rent, damaging the rental unit, bringing in a dog (if your lease prohibits pets), making too much noise, or otherwise violating the lease. The landlord can hold all cotenants legally responsible for the lease violation of just one person, and take steps to evict all of you.

All tenants who signed the lease are responsible for the rent for the entire duration of the lease whether they live there or not. If a roommate moves out and doesn’t pay his or her share of the rent, you (and the other roommates) must pay the rent in full or face eviction.

You can try to collect rent from the nonpaying roommate. Try working it out in a friendly way. If that doesn’t work, consider suing your roommate in small claims court.

You Can’t Evict!

You can’t evict your roommate yourself (unless you rent to a subtenant) or live in a rental in one of the few rent control communities, such as San Francisco, that allow a landlord to designate a “master tenant” to perform many of the functions of a landlord.

While as a general rule, you can’t terminate the tenancy of a roommate, you can, however, make it easier for your landlord to evict your roommate. Talk to your landlord if getting your roommate to leave is the only way to solve your problem (especially if you fear for your physical safety). Your landlord may allow you to stay and bring in a replacement tenant (assuming your landlord approves the new person). But if you can’t find an acceptable replacement, you will still be responsible for paying the entire rent.

Protect yourself, too. Sometimes roommates become violent during the eviction process. You may need to file an anti-harassment or domestic violence order to protect yourself (local police or a battered woman’s shelter can provide advice). Many states have laws protecting victims of domestic violence, such as by providing early termination rights.

Having a roommate can be–and often is–an enjoyable experience that results in a lifelong friendship. So choose wisely and know how to avoid and resolve problems.

Living with one or more roommates is not always easy, but it may be a necessity when you simply can’t afford a house or apartment on your own. Sharing a home with others can be a lot of fun—or it can be something you hate. You can avoid a lot of headaches by carefully selecting housemates and preparing a written roommate agreement that covers the day-to-day details of living together, including how you will resolve any problems that come up.

Where to Look for Roommates

There are many different ways to find a roommate. One of the best is a referral from a friend, relative, or coworker. Depending on where you live, you might find a good roommate in a local classified ad, or even a school, church, or grocery store bulletin board. Craigslist is a popular way to find roommates, especially in large urban areas. Other online resources include Roommates.com and Roomster.net.

Choosing Your Roommate

Even if your potential new roommate is a close friend, you’ll want to make sure you’ll be compatible living together, since you are going to be around each other a lot, sharing expenses, and perhaps sharing food, the bathroom, television set, or yard. In some cases, you may even be sharing a bedroom.

Before you choose to a roommate, be sure to ask questions about everything important to you in a living situation, such as standard of cleanliness or neatness, acceptable noise levels, and frequency of overnight guests (see the discussion of roommate agreements, below, for key issues to discuss).

Particularly if you’re considering sharing a rental with a stranger you found online, ask for and check references from former roommates or landlords.

A Landlord-Tenant Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding roommates in a rental property can be complicated. Plus, the facts of each case and the law in each state are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more specific, detailed information about your legal rights and responsibilities regarding roommates, contact a landlord-tenant lawyer.

Questions for Your Attorney

· Is it safe to find a roommate over the internet?

· Can I be sued for discrimination when choosing a roommate?

· What can I do if my roommate moved out before the lease ended and then moved to another state?

· I think my roommate has a serious drug problem and I want her out. She won’t leave, and I’m afraid my landlord will evict all of us if he knows about this. How can I get my roommate out?

· Do I need my landlord’s permission to occasionally rent my extra room out on Airbnb?

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